Is My Eating Disordered?

By 
Dr. Sera Lavelle

Is My Eating Disordered?

In a culture that pressures people to be unrealistically thin, it’s understandable if we sometimes try too hard to lose weight or binge to push down our emotions. If you’re struggling to find balance with your eating or wondering if your own eating patterns are disordered, you’re not alone.

With so many conflicting messages in the media about disordered eating, many of my clients are surprised to learn that they have the clinical profile of anorexia, even though they binge-eat regularly; or that they have bulimia, even though they’re not inducing vomiting. Though I don’t find it helpful to put people in a box, I’ve seen how eye-opening it can be to understand that some eating patterns can be harmful, especially since it offers people an opportunity to find constructive ways to get help.

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is characterized by “severe disturbances in eating habits,” with prime examples being anorexia and bulimia. Since eating disorders aren’t always presented accurately in the media, here’s a very basic shorthand:

*Anorexia: highly restricted eating

*Bulimia: binge eating, followed by purging

*Binge-purge anorexia: binge eating, accompanied by purging and restricted eating

*Binge eating disorder: binge eating, without purging or restricted eating

People with anorexia typically have very low body weight. Their perception of weight and body image are distorted, and they have an intense fear of putting on weight, no matter how little they weigh. Anorexia’s severe calorie restriction is an unhealthy coping strategy for emotional problems, in which thinness becomes equated with self-worth. Efforts to control their weight — like severely restricting food — has a profound impact on the rest of their lives. With binge-purge anorexia, there are both extreme eating restrictions as well as instances of binge eating with feelings of being “out of control.” It’s not uncommon to purge by inducing vomiting, misusing laxatives, or using diet pills or even enemas. Compulsive exercise is another form of purging, since it’s also about trying to get rid of the binged calories. Not everyone with anorexia is excessively thin. Depending on their starting weight, individuals who look healthy or overweight might be starving themselves in a tortured quest for perfection. It’s also common for people with anorexia to try to camouflage both their bodies and their disordered eating habits.

With bulimia, there are often secret binges of large amounts of food - to the point of being overly full - followed by the same purging behavior described above. The big difference between bulimia and binge-purge anorexia is that with bulimia, there’s no restricted eating between binge episodes. There’s also binge eating disorder, characterized by episodes of binge eating without purging or restricted eating.

It’s confusing, right? These differences can appear subtle, but I see the common thread: the desire to be thin, coupled with the need to control feelings through an unhealthy relationship with food.

Eating Disorders vs. Disordered Eating

The field of psychology relies on labels like anorexia and bulimia to describe a pattern of symptoms that cause distress. In reality, the differences between one label and another can create artificial divides, and not everyone fits so neatly into a box. Conflicting messages about food are everywhere. Television commercials try to tempt us with decadent chocolates, triple-decker burgers, and various types of salty, fried snacks. But our diet culture and social media influencers insist that we should feel shame about eating, even though we require food to live.

Because it is confusing to know what “healthy” eating looks like, it can be difficult to understand if your eating behavior is disordered or not.

More to the point, non-disordered eating is defined as eating when you’re hungry and then stopping when you’re full. But who hasn’t gone through a whole sleeve of cookies at the end of a rough day? Food can be distracting or even soothing when times are tough, but engaging in unhealthy habits too often can turn into a pattern of using food as a coping measure. Treating food as a reward can also be problematic, as feelings of happiness and accomplishment become intertwined with eating, regardless of your body’s true hunger cues. That being said, having celebratory dessert after a promotion or overindulging over the holidays would hardly be a cause for concern.

Disordered eating is when you regularly turn to food for reasons other than hunger or have an unhealthy relationship with food. If you’re obsessed with food all day, worrying over calories, avoiding specific foods because you think they’ll make you put on weight, engaging in purging activities like excessive exercise to burn off the extra calories, or eating when you’re bored or stressed, that’s when you might want to check in with yourself about disordered eating. It's also important to note that a lot of people engage in harmful eating behaviors while not having a full-blown eating disorder. The main difference is the frequency and severity of these behaviors and symptoms.

An actual eating disorder also includes a preoccupation with body weight and body image and obsession with food and food-related behavior, to the point that it impacts the rest of your life — such as not being able to concentrate at work because you’re preoccupied with what you ate the day before and what the bathroom scale might register tomorrow. Other differentiating factors can include hiding food, eating in secret, fasting or extreme food restrictions, loss of control when binging, rigid rituals around eating, inflexible calorie counting, feelings of shame or guilt around eating, avoiding food-related social situations, and engaging in purging behavior like inducing vomiting, abusing laxatives, or excessive exercise. Eating disorders can carry lifelong consequences, including anemia, bone and muscle loss, gastrointestinal problems, kidney problems, and even death. Not all disordered eating will lead to an eating disorder, but it is a slippery slope and can potentially become dangerous.

When and How to Get Help

It might be difficult to recognize your unhealthy eating habits, and even harder to acknowledge that you have an eating disorder. Forget about the labels, definitions, and what box you might or might not fit into.

If your eating and your relationship to food is upsetting you, there are many ways to make changes and get the support you need. You can take steps to let go of the diet mindset.

This means avoiding diet trends, calorie counting, and food deprivation, as well as learning to eat in moderation while choosing from a wide variety of foods. Other constructive steps include getting rid of your bathroom scale and letting go of regular weigh-ins, because your health and well-being have more to do with how you’re feeling than any number on a scale. You can also set limits on exercise for the sake of burning calories and instead focus on the joy and fun of moving your body — basically, have a playdate with yourself instead of scheduling a vigorous workout.

Developing a mindfulness practice can also support you in reducing or eliminating the critical self-talk that often accompanies both eating disorders and disordered eating behavior. These negative thoughts — about calorie counts, comparing yourself to runway models, or judgment about what you have or haven’t eaten — can make it difficult to be present. And not being present makes it easier to engage in problematic, automatic behaviors. You can change your negative self-talk and instead practice noticing and appreciating all the wonderful things about your body — like your stamina or your ability to take care of yourself in myriad ways. Your thoughts don’t have to determine who you are, and you can develop greater self-compassion, be more proactive, and make healthier choices.

Mindfulness offers a way out of the spiral of guilt and shame that can otherwise keep you trapped.

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can help people understand the underlying causes of their behavior and even reduce the internalization of the harmful messages of diet culture. Methods for learning mindfulness include meditation, journaling, and intentional movement like yoga. When you learn to immerse yourself in the moment, you can understand in real time the differences between the outside world and what’s going on inside you. It’s an opportunity to notice your triggers and consider your options before you act. Eliminating distractions — like phones and television — during meals is also key to being present.

Professional help can also be key to addressing issues around food, even if you don’t have a severe eating disorder. Working with a trained specialist, such as a psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy, can help you learn new strategies for changing your thoughts and behaviors around eating and ease your way into recovery. Understanding that you need help is an important first step. If you’re not sure where to turn, you can start by contacting an eating disorder hotline, such as Eating Disorder Hope, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, or the National Eating Disorders Association.

Dr. Sera Lavelle is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness & hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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